Feb. 21, 2014

Nonsense Song

by W. H. Auden

My love is like a red red rose
Or concerts for the blind,
She's like a mutton-chop before
And a rifle-range behind.

Her hair is like a looking-glass,
Her brow is like a bog,
Her eyes are like a flock of sheep
Seen through a London fog.

Her nose is like an Irish jig,
Her mouth is like a 'bus,
Her chin is like a bowl of soup
Shared between all of us.

Her form divine is like a map
Of the United States,
Her foot is like a motor-car
Without its number-plates.

No steeple-jack shall part us now
Nor fireman in a frock;
True love could sink a Channel boat
Or knit a baby's sock.

"Nonsense Song" by W.H. Auden from As I Walked Out One Evening. © Vintage Books, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of David Foster Wallace (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1962). He wrote Infinite Jest (1996), which was 1,079 pages long with 388 footnotes. It was dense and intellectual, a futurist novel about addiction, tennis, and separatist groups, among many other subjects. But it was a best-seller, and it propelled Wallace into the literary spotlight. He was considered one of the country's most promising young novelists. He published a couple of books of short stories, and then he committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. He was working on a novel at the time of his death, about a third of the way done. It's a novel about boredom titled the The Pale King, which was published in 2011.

He said: "Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving. ... The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years."

It's the birthday of the poet who said: "I was — and in most respects still am — mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, very untidy and grubby, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever." That's W.H. Auden (books by this author), born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England (1907). As a boy, he was obsessed with the lead mines of Northern England, and he begged his parents for textbooks like Machinery for Metalliferous Mines. He loved the names of mines, names like Redan, Thackmoss, Halfpenny Scar, and Pity Mea; he said, "A word like pyrites was for me not simply an indicative sign; it was the Proper Name of a Sacred Being." People thought he would turn out to be a scientist and engineer, but he was more excited by the ideas and vocabulary of mining. He said: "I doubt if a person with both these passions, for the word and for the symbol, could become anything but a poet."

When he was 15, at boarding school, he had a crush on a boy named Robert Medley; they went on a walk in the countryside together and Medley asked Auden if he wrote poetry. Although he had never done so, Auden decided to try, and soon after had his first poem published. He went to Oxford, where he discovered the poetry of T.S. Eliot and began to imitate his style. Auden's friend and lover Christopher Isherwood said: "The earliest symptoms of Eliot-influence were most alarming. Like a patient who has received an over-powerful inoculation, Auden developed a severe attack of allusions, jargonitis, and private jokes." In 1930, his first book, Poems, was accepted by Eliot at Faber and Faber, and Auden met the man who had inspired him so much. He said: "So long as one was in Eliot's presence, one felt it was impossible to say or do anything base."

For the next few years, Auden taught in boys' schools. He marched around campus in a big Flemish hat waving an umbrella, and he smoked so much that he always carried a box of 100 cigarettes with him. (A poet friend said of Auden: "Everything he touches turns to cigarettes.") He was a demanding teacher, but also energetic and entertaining. He encouraged physical activity in class, and gave lectures on astronomy or art or the meaning of sex. He published his theories about teaching literature. He felt that it was important to have children read great classics, because they were "the reaction of exceptional adult minds to vast experience." And he believed that if students were going to read or write about an activity, like sawing wood, they should go do it themselves first.

He spent a few years writing in all sorts of forms — radio plays, prose mixed with poetry, reviews, travel journalism, and documentary films. In 1939, he left England for New York. The English were outraged, since Auden was a huge celebrity in England, considered the voice of his generation. Some thought he was running away from the war. He ended up in a run-down house in Brooklyn Heights, where his housemates included novelist Carson McCullers, composer Benjamin Britten, and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Within a year of moving to America, he returned to the Anglican faith he had abandoned as a teenager, and he fell in love with Chester Kallman, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn who remained his companion for the rest of his life. Auden continued to publish poetry, lectured widely, and taught. His first American teaching gig was at a boys' prep school, where he asked his students to write essays in which every sentence contained a lie. He met and influenced younger poets as he traveled across the country on his teaching and lecture circuit, including Sylvia Plath, who wrote: "He is my conception of the perfect poet: tall, with a big leonine head and a sandy mane of hair, and a lyrically gigantic stride. Needless to say he has a wonderfully textured British accent, and I adore him with a big Hero Worship." Back in New York, he entertained young poets in his messy apartment. His final years were split between America and Europe. He was employed by Oxford as professor but spent just three weeks a year there, living mostly in New York or Austria. In 1973, he died in his sleep after a poetry reading.

He said, "Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh."

The first issue of The New Yorker was published on this date in 1925. The magazine was founded by Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, who was a reporter for The New York Times; Ross remained editor-in-chief until his death in 1951. The magazine was styled as a showcase for wit, gossip, and culture; its target readership was the New York sophisticate. As Ross said, "[I]t is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." The problem was that the magazine lacked a clear vision at first. In the second issue, editors published an apology for the first: "There didn't seem to be much indication of purpose and we felt sort of naked in our apparent aimlessness." Circulation had dropped to 12,000 by fall, but then it started to turn around; its recovery was helped along when Ross hired E.B. White as a staff writer in 1926, and brought James Thurber on board the following year. Gradually, the magazine stopped dropping names and began building a reputation as the home of outstanding contemporary poetry, short fiction, and essays.

Today the most influential and best-selling political pamphlet of all time was first published: The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels and published on this day in 1848.

Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto as a call to action aimed at proletariat across Western Europe, and as an advertisement or plug for a specific type of socialism — the version Marx and his colleagues and the Communist League promoted. There were a lot of versions of socialism already circulating around Europe.

Most of the ideas that went into the Communist Manifesto were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London. Karl Marx had the job of drafting up the ideas into something publishable. He was supposed to get it done by New Year's Day, but he missed his deadline. He finished it, along with help from Engels, by early February — and it was on this day in 1848 that the pamphlet was finally published.

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